The classic Taoist treatise Daodejing or Tao Te Ching, written by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu 2,000 years ago, elaborates the idea of harmony, one of the core values of traditional Chinese culture. Along with other key concepts such as righteousness and good faith, it continues to guide China's international relations, which are based on moral values. In contrast, in the international community, some countries are still pursuing the outdated "survival of the fittest" philosophy where whoever is strongest has the final say.
Zhang Lihua, a professor at the Institute of International Relations, Tsinghua University, says the ancient thoughts expounded in Daodejing can inspire efforts to establish moral standards in international society. Her main points follow:
Daodejing advocates that people abide by the concept of Dao, what we call objective law nowadays. Lao Tzu emphasized the harmony of the three elements—heaven, earth and human beings. In other words, people should act in accordance with the laws of the universe, nature and society to achieve harmony between human beings and nature, between individuals and society, and between people.
Relations between countries should be according to the laws of social development and comply with the development of the times as well as with the trend in the world. For example, peace and development are the trend today. To safeguard world peace and promote the development of all countries while seeking mutual benefit, cooperation and win-win outcomes are in line with the law of social development and represent the moral norms of the international community. All countries should live in harmony and coexist peacefully.
In 1953, the Chinese Government put forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: "mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence." These principles have not only become the basis of China's independent foreign policy of peace, but have also been accepted by the vast majority of countries and thus become the basic norms of international relations.
A moral country should safeguard world peace and promote the development of all other nations. A big country should not harm others, cause trouble or provoke others for its self-interest, but enforce reciprocal help. It should not use its economic and military power to bully other countries and dominate the world.
In modern history, almost every country that has attempted to dominate the world by force has failed. Adolf Hitler's Nazi empire, which was opposed by people in Europe and elsewhere around the world, relied on its military power to launch World War II, invaded and occupied European countries, but eventually failed.
The best is like water
Daodejing says, "The highest excellence is like (that of) water. Water's excellence lies in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men dislike. Hence its way is near to that of the Dao."
Lao Tzu used water as a metaphor for the moral standards of the best people. We can extend this to the moral standards of international society. That is to say, a country that has mastered the moral way treats other countries sincerely and in a friendly way, cooperates with others, and never harms the interests of others for its own interests.
As for the interests of a moral country, it should combine them with those of other countries to achieve mutual benefits, mutual trust and win-win cooperation. Countries that have mastered morality will be able to attract other countries for communication and become friends or partners.
After the novel coronavirus disease outbreak, many countries expressed support to China. After taking strong measures to control the epidemic situation at home, China supported other countries in need, providing medical and epidemic prevention materials and experts. This helping each other in times of crisis reflects the moral principle and shows it is not a mirage but can be implemented in the paradigm of global affairs.
Daodejing says: "Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to small states, gains them for itself; and that small states, by abasing themselves to a great state, win it over to them."
This clarifies the way for countries to get along with each other. That is, countries of all sizes should respect each other. Powerful countries should respect small countries in particular, so as to eliminate their fear and insecurity. In this regard, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence embodies Lao Tzu's thought.
The idea in Daodejing is completely different from the Western viewpoint, which emphasizes the pursuit of power and interests. Lao Tzu advocated the idea of equality and mutual respect between countries and criticized arrogant behavior, self-righteousness, and hegemony.
After the 1950s, the newly independent African countries were in a state of poverty and underdevelopment. China has assisted African countries since the 1960s, not only providing funds and interest-free loans, but also building infrastructure, like the famous Tanzania-Zambia Railway. The assistance does not come with any political conditions. China treats African countries from the perspective of brotherhood, which reflects Lao Tzu's philosophy of respect and mutual understanding among large and small countries.
No abuse of force
Daodejing states that people who manage the country in accordance with the Dao do not engage in fight. Lao Tzu also said it is impossible to achieve the goal of governing the world by force.
In his conception, the country that masters the Dao is a country led by sages. These wise people have the noble character of serving others wholeheartedly and would lead their country to be peaceful and considerate instead of seeking hegemony or world dominance.
Lao Tzu told us that a strong national army is only for self-defense and not to pursue interests by displaying force, let alone plunder the wealth of other countries through war. Looking at history, we can see that the forces that started wars in an attempt to dominate the world were short-lived. Whether the German Second Reich, or Hitler's empire or Japanese fascist militarism in World War II, there is no exception.
In today's world, the law of the jungle, a Cold War mentality, and hegemonic tendencies still exist in the minds of leaders and the elite in some countries. For their own interests, they provoke trouble and generate conflicts and wars.
More than 2,000 years ago, Chinese philosophers recognized the laws of social development and interpreted the idea of harmony. This traditional Chinese tenet has important implications for the peaceful development of today's world. The moral thoughts set forth in Daodejing provide inspiration for the promotion of ethics in peaceful international relations, cooperation and harmony, and for the construction of moral standards in today's world.
Today, economic globalization has closely linked the interests of all countries as well as the fate of humankind. The need for peace, development and cooperation is a huge driving force for the advancement of human society. The concept of building a community with a shared future for humanity advocated by China is in tandem with the trend of the times. If countries can agree on the moral principles of international society and abide by them, hegemonic politics that endangers human society will become a thing of the past.